Mark Bullen from Armidale Bicycle Centre was an official mechanic for the 2008 Australian Paralympic cycling team in Beijing. He shares with us his admiration for the athletes, who refuse to be limited by their physical differences.
> How did you become involved with the Paralympics?
It was a progression, or a job that came to me. I’d worked with other cycling disciplines in the past, with state teams and the British team in the able body competition, and I think it was just a natural progression.
But I must say that with my father’s influence in the past and where he’s worked, my involvement has probably evolved from his reputation more than anything. They asked me to do the job and I said, “Why not? I’ll have a go at it.”
> What was your role in the Paralympic cycling team?
I was a mechanic. We had two mechanics over there and eighteen athletes. We also had two coaches and a couple of managers, and then there were masseurs and doctors who were already over the there. My main role was to make sure that the mechanics on the bikes were right.
This involved changing wheels at the track, as well as gears and cogs. It also meant refining the bikes so that they were running at their top performance level. We were dealing with the Ferraris of the bike game, so the equipment was the latest and greatest, and you had to make sure it all performed well.
> How do the needs of Paralympic cyclists differ from those of able bodied athletes?
That’s probably the hardest thing to get your head around. We had four tandems, which have able bodied people on the front and blind or partially blind people on the back. It’s quite a complex sort of unit. Then you come across different styles of bikes, where some only have one side because some people only have the one leg. So you’ve got a little pouch that the left leg, or what’s left of it, sits in.
Some of the athletes have a mechanical leg made up so it sits on the bike, but there’s no power to it. As far the bikes themselves go, the main mechanics are all there. The wheels and gears are changing the same, it’s just that there are small things that are different.
> Describe the opening/closing ceremonies?
We didn’t go to the opening ceremony, and that was a team decision because we had competition starting immediately the following morning. There were buses running all the time and it was very well organised, but we had to be on the first bus to make sure that all the equipment was ready for when the athletes arrived.
The closing ceremony we did go to. It was magnificent. They shipped us from the village to the doors of the tunnel that went under the Bird’s Nest. The competition was over, so everyone was relaxed and in for a good time.
They pulled us up at the tunnel, and in under the Bird’s Nest we went then popped out the other side. It’s a buzz, with the people yelling and screaming. The athletes were all in a jovial mood, and being Aussies, they were playing practical jokes. I’ve never ever walked out into something that makes your hair stand up.
The building itself does that. I think if you walked in there by yourself you’d get the same feeling. It’s just a magnificent structure. So the closing ceremony was something special and something I’ll always remember.
> How did our Aussie riders go?
Excellent really. If you look at the results, we were beaten by Great Britain. Their team is well organised. Where they stand out from everybody else at the moment is that they’re confident, their program works, they’re well funded and their athletes are happy.
Great Britain did outperform us and beat us in a lot of cases quite convincingly. We ran second in the medal tally in cycling, and as far as our performances went, most of the athletes maintained the level they were at and met their expectations. In a couple of cases they surpassed their expectations.
One girl beat her personal best time by 15 seconds, and that’s massive – especially at that level. I must say the team was happy. Obviously we’d love more gold, but all we’ve got to do now is work on the Poms for next time around.
> Did you meet some inspirational people?
It’s funny, because when you work with able bodied athletes you tend to be in awe of them, but with the disabled bodied athletes I didn’t know many of them. I had no expectations. But when you get into competition you realise that these people are very good at what they do.
In the Australian team I must say that Chris Scott from Queensland is a great bloke. He’s very humble, and he was our most successful cyclist. He’s one of the blokes I loved to work for, because he made no special demands.
> What inspires the Paralympians?
I think their inspiration comes from the able bodied. It’s a case of “They can do it, so why can’t I?” Disabled people see themselves as normal. Able bodied people are the ones who have the hang-ups. If we see a blind person we try to get out of the way and help them. But in most cases they don’t want help. The first two days in the village I’d see a person with no legs and I’d think “poor bugger.” I’d see someone with no arms and wonder how they’d wipe their nose or feed themselves. After two days it becomes normal and you realise they just do.
A story I tell happened during the first two days when I was sitting in the meal room. The food hall itself is about 500 metres long by about 200 metres wide. It’s where everyone congregates. We were sitting there and one of the able bodied guys we were with was eating steamed dim sims and was chasing them all over the table with his chopsticks.
This Chinese guy came in and he had no arms. I watched him and he came and picked up his tray under his chin. There was someone there who gave him chop sticks. I was watching thinking ‘How’s he going to use chopsticks?”
He went over to a fridge and stuck his head in the fridge and pulled a drink out under his chin. He put it on his tray. People don’t understand this story and they think I’m making it up, but it’s true. Then he picked up the tray under his chin and went to the food part and communicated with the people what he wanted.
Over he goes and he plonks it at the table. And bugger me if he didn’t put his foot up on the table, get the out chopsticks and start picking up dim sims and putting them in his mouth. And I thought, wow, you can adapt to anything! If I didn’t see it with my own eyes I probably wouldn’t have believed it.
The disabled athlete really just wants to get on with life. I think we’ve got to do more to encourage disabled people to get out there and do it. You don’t see anyone walking around Armidale saying, “You’re vision impaired, but you’d go good on the back of a tandem.” That’s what we need to do to give them the opportunity.
> Tell us about Armidale Bicycle Centre?
We’ve been in Armidale since 1972. It’s been a family business all the way through. My father grew up in Newcastle and we moved up here. We purchased the business from a fellow called Jack Forbes. The older people in the community would know Jack Forbes. His shop was down opposite where the Whitebull is now; it was only a small shop. We were there for 15-odd years.
From there we moved to where Centrelink is now. Then about ten years ago we moved into this shop. My mother and father pioneered the store. I did all my schooling here, then went away from town for a little bit and worked in Sydney and raced competitively and went into the Federal Police for a little while.
Once I finished that, and my father was starting to tour the world with the Australian team, I came back to help him run the business. It has been under our control for 36 years now.
> How has your father, Jock, been involved with the Australian Olympic team?
Dad’s been fortunate enough to have been with the Australian team as their mechanic for six Olympics. He’s never done a disabled Olympics, though he’s worked with disabled people along the way. I think he’s also done six Commonwealth Games, as well as world titles and other events. He’s rubbed shoulders with the best and the elite. He has invitations from the Queen to have dinner. I don’t think I could ever match what he’s done, because I’m very much a homebody. I love home, and I love my family and kids. I don’t really like going away.
> What are your plans for the future?
The Paralympic Committee asks you to be involved, and obviously they like to know what’s going on and where they stand. They did ask if I’d do further trips, and I told them that I have a business here and I’m devoted to my business and my family but I would certainly consider doing other events. I would put my hat in the ring if any events came up that suited me.
There are a lot of other priorities that I’d like to deal with first. I have a son who’s racing, and my main priority in the sporting field is for him to achieve whatever he can and get to whatever level he’s happy with. I also want to give back to the community here.
Thank you Mark.